Cameron House Early History Retold in New Book

by Rev. Norman Fong

May 28, 2019

norman fong

As a child of the 1950’s, almost all the kids of Chinatown went to Donaldina Cameron House or the Chinatown YMCA. There weren’t computers, the internet or cell phones yet. During the summers, we all went to summer day camps and we got to know each other in small groups or clubs as we called them back then. Us kids picked our own club names like the Flying Dragons or the “Spartans” (which was my group name – we picked it because of a movie showing back then). Churches also had summer camps. We learned how to cook over camp fires in Golden Gate Park, created skits, learned fun songs, group games, sports and even nature activities.

donaldina cameron house

Later in life, as a teenager, I remember coming back to Cameron House as a day camp leader and being part of their Friday Night Club Program. On Sundays, we sometimes went to a Youth Church program. It was in the late 1960’s when I remember meeting for the first time – Donaldina Cameron who the center is named after. I didn’t know much about her history back then or what she did for Cameron House. Later on, when I served on the Cameron House staff, I learned about that history. Cameron House, started by Presbyterian Church women, heard about Chinese girls being forced to become prostitutes or slaves in the many brothels in Chinatown. Racist immigration and anti-miscegenation laws were at the roots of the social problem. Americans didn’t even want the Chinese to integrate and live here.

Cameron House has it’s roots in being a rescue home or shelter for girls and young women who were forced to be slaves in Chinatown. Many young girls from China were sold and shipped to Chinatown to be abused in these terrible places called brothels or sold to become domestic slaves. It is a period in history that we don’t talk about much but the stories are now resurfacing because of this new book released called “The White Devil’s Daughters”.

Donaldina Cameron was a young Scottish woman who joined with others like Tien Fuh Wu to get these girls out of these brothels. Thousands were rescued and lived at Cameron House – then known as simply “The Home” on 920 Sacramento Street. Many of the girls had to hide in this little tunnel in the basement of Cameron House so the “Bad Owners of the Brothels could not find the girls”. That little tunnel – now bricked up - is a historical landmark of San Francisco.

Chinatown has a long and tough history in America. Racism was very real and even after slavery was supposedly abolished – it did not apply to the Chinese. I read through the new book and was very much conflicted. On the one hand, it was heart wrenching to read these stories of women and girls being forced to become slaves and on the other hand I felt angry about how America didn’t protect basic human rights afforded to other racial groups. Why did so many San Franciscans and Californians allow this to happen? Although I appreciate the Presbyterians and Methodists who took many risks to rescue these girls and young Asian women, why did the lawmakers and city leaders look the other way? Although my mom was born here in Chinatown in the early 20th Century, it was her mom that we all guessed had to endure the pains of this period. Our grandmas or great grandmothers – the few imported in the 1800s and early 1900s must have suffered so much as there were very few Chinese and later Asian women allowed into this country. Imagine Chinatown being 90% single men in the old days. Chinese men who could not socialize outside with women of any other ethnicities and on top of that – White racism on the streets and even the labor unions focused on the slogan “The Chinese Must Go!”

the white devils daughters julia flynn siler

donaldina cameron tien fuh wu

donaldina cameron

san francisco chinatown slavery women

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Our Chinatown history is very painful to look back on, however, it is part of our historic legacy that we must face. The impact of poverty in China, racial exclusion here plus the use and abuse of girls and young women – all came together in this time period. The worst thing is that human trafficking is still happening today. We have to do something about it. Cameron House’ Social Services Department continues to provide counseling for low income families facing domestic violence today and there are many other services available like Asian Women Shelters and APILO legal services.

Originally published in Sing Tao Daily on May 26, 2019

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